When a handcuffed Freddie Gray was placed in a Baltimore police van on April 12, he was talking and breathing. When the 25-year-old emerged, "he could not talk and he could not breathe," according to one police official, and he died a week later of a spinal injury.
But Gray is not the first person to come out of a Baltimore police wagon with serious injuries.
Relatives of Dondi Johnson Sr., who was left a paraplegic after a 2005 police van ride, won a $7.4 million verdict against police officers. A year earlier, Jeffrey Alston was awarded $39 million by a jury after he became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a van ride. Others have also received payouts after filing lawsuits.
For some, such injuries have been inflicted by what is known as a "rough ride" — an "unsanctioned technique" in which police vans are driven to cause "injury or pain" to unbuckled, handcuffed detainees, former city police officer Charles J. Key testified as an expert five years ago in a lawsuit over Johnson's subsequent death.
As daily protests continue in the streets of Baltimore, authorities are trying to determine how Gray was injured, and their focus is on the 30-minute van ride that followed his arrest. "It's clear what happened, happened inside the van," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday at a news conference.
Christine Abbott, a 27-year-old assistant librarian at the Johns Hopkins University, is suing city officers in federal court, alleging that she got such a ride in 2012. According to the suit, officers cuffed Abbott's hands behind her back, threw her into a police van, left her unbuckled and "maniacally drove" her to the Northern District police station, "tossing [her] around the interior of the police van."
"They were braking really short so that I would slam against the wall, and they were taking really wide, fast turns," Abbott said in an interview that mirrored allegations in her lawsuit. "I couldn't brace myself. I was terrified."
The lawsuit states she suffered unspecified injuries from the arrest and the ride.
"You feel like a piece of cargo," she added. "You don't feel human."
The van's driver stated in a deposition that Abbott was not buckled into her seat belt, but the officers have denied driving recklessly.
Police officials have not directly linked Gray's van ride to his injuries but did say that he was not buckled in, as required by department policy. Medical experts say Gray could have injured his spine when he was arrested and that injury could have worsened in the van through even an inadvertent bump, turn or stop.
"From my work in the criminal defense arena over the past 40 years, I'm aware of this term 'rough ride' and that it happens," said Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law school professor who trains police officers in proper techniques for dealing with people they stop. "How frequent it is, how abusive it is — I don't know."
But, he added, if a prisoner dies of a broken neck while in custody, the city has a problem. "The force it takes to break a neck means wrongdoing, in my judgment."
Fractured neck, then death
The most sensational case in Baltimore involved Johnson, a 43-year-old plumber who was arrested for public urination. He was handcuffed and placed in a transport van in good health. He emerged a quadriplegic.
Before he died, he complained to his doctor that he was not buckled into his seat when the police van "made a sharp turn," sending him "face first" into the interior of the van, court records state. He was "violently thrown around the back of the vehicle as [police officers] drove in an aggressive fashion, taking turns so as to injure [Johnson] who was helplessly cuffed," the lawsuit stated.
Johnson, who suffered a fractured neck, died two weeks later of pneumonia caused by his paralysis. His family sued, and a jury agreed that three officers were negligent in the way they treated Johnson. The initial $7.4 million award, however, was eventually reduced to $219,000 by Maryland's Court of Special Appeals because state law caps such payouts.
In 1997, Alston became paralyzed from the neck down in a van after being arrested. Alston said he told the officers he couldn't breathe, but they refused to give him an inhaler for asthma.
Officers said the 32-year-old repeatedly rammed his head into the side of the van, freed himself from a seat belt and thrashed some more.
Alston sued, and at the trial, Dr. Adrian Barbul, a Sinai Hospital trauma surgeon, testified that Alston had no external head injuries when he was taken to the emergency room.
A jury awarded Alston $39 million, but he and the city settled for $6 million. In settlements, the city generally does not acknowledge liability; the officers involved in the case did not face disciplinary actions.
Alston's attorney, Philip Federico, said Thursday that the Gray case brought back memories of Alston, who died about eight years ago. What jumped out was that both men had asthma and were denied when they asked police for inhalers, he said.
Federico said he doesn't condone misconduct by police but cautioned that all of the facts in the Gray case are not yet known. The autopsy will be crucial in showing whether Gray had any head injuries or whether the spine injury came from his neck twisting, he added.
Federico said of the protests and national spotlight in Baltimore: "It's tearing our city apart. We're going in the wrong direction from a race-relations standpoint."
In 1997, the city paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of Homer Long, who suffered a fatal heart attack in a van in 2003. Family members said the arrest was improper; officers said Long contributed to his death by behaving belligerently during the arrest.
And in 1980, a 58-year-old man broke his neck and became paralyzed during a ride to the Southwestern District. While seated on a bench with his hands cuffed behind his back, John Wheatfall was thrown to the floor and hit his head against a wall, The Sun reported. The officer said he swerved to avoid an oncoming car, and investigators ruled that the officer was not reckless.
At the time, the vans did not have seat belts, and police officials said installing them could cause other injuries during accidents. An official said: "We carry thousands and thousands of people in those wagons, and this is the most serious accident I've ever heard of."
Wheatfall sued for $3 million, but a judge ruled that there was no evidence the officer was negligent. The jury granted Wheatfall $20,000, the maximum amount under a state law when an accident is caused by an unknown driver of another vehicle.
'Like a roller coaster'
On June 2, 2012, Abbott was hosting a party at her Hampden home when two officers arrived to follow up on a noise complaint. According to her lawsuit in U.S. District Court, the officers began to argue with a guest for not putting out a cigarette while they spoke to him. When Abbott tried to calm both sides, the officers threw her to the ground. They then pulled her up, ripping her dress and exposing her breasts. They handcuffed her and "forcefully threw [Abbott] into the back of a police van," the lawsuit states.
"It felt like a roller coaster," Abbott said in the interview. "Except a roller coaster is more secure because you're strapped in."
In their response to the lawsuit, police acknowledged that Abbott was not strapped into the van. But they denied throwing her into it.
Michael Marshall, the attorney for the two officers, added in an interview, "The wagon guy is a veteran officer, he's not giving anyone a rough ride,"
Police did not respond to a request for details about complaints related to the vans.
Department policy governing "persons in police custody" now requires officers to use seat belts to "prevent the detainee from maneuvering out of the restraint and possibly causing injury to himself/herself or others." It also says officers are required to take detainees to the nearest medical facility upon request.
Abbott was detained for 19 hours and eventually charged with second-degree assault and resisting arrest, among other charges. All charges were dropped three months later.
In the Gray arrest, video shows him yelling in pain as officers hoisted him into a police van on April 12. He was taken to the Western District police station and later underwent surgery at Maryland Shock Trauma Center for three fractured neck vertebrae and a crushed voice box — injuries that doctors said are more common among the elderly or victims of high-speed crashes.
Medical experts said it takes powerful blunt force — akin to the impact from a car accident — to tear or sever the spinal cord. Such injuries can fatally impair the body's ability to regulate blood flow and breathing.
If Gray's neck was already injured when he was placed in the van, it may not have taken a rough ride to render him unable to speak or breathe, as he was when officers retrieved him from the vehicle, said Dr. Ali Bydon, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. And video of Gray standing at the back of the van before being placed inside is not necessarily proof that his spine was uninjured before the ride, he said.
"It can be a progressive, cumulative loss of function if the spinal cord is unstable and unprotected," Bydon said. "You don't need tremendous force to follow up on further injury to the spine — a force you and me can take because we have stable necks, but that an unstable neck cannot withstand."
Police officials said Tuesday that they are checking all vans to make sure they're outfitted with proper restraints, and they are considering putting cameras inside. City Councilman Brandon Scott said he plans to hold hearings on the state of the police fleet of vans or "wagons," including why the department halted a plan last year to reduce their use.
Natalie Finegar, the deputy public defender for Baltimore City, said she does not believe rough rides are a common practice in Baltimore — or she would have heard about it.
Key, the former city police officer who is now a consultant, said another term for the practice was "bringing them up front." By slamming on the brakes, detainees would bump against the cage behind the driver's seat.
"If it's done on purpose, it's a criminal act and violates regulations," said Key, who is not involved in Gray's case. If a detainee is injured in a ride due to some action by the driver, the incident must be reported, he added.
University of South Carolina professor Geoffrey Alpert, an expert in police force, said rough rides are also known as "screen tests." When police cars or vans had screens between the front and back seats, drivers would stop short — "to avoid a dog" — sending a handcuffed prisoner flying face-first into the screen, he said.
"Cops used to laugh about it. That was big in the 1980s and 1990s," Alpert said. "It was obviously against policy and illegal. I remember in some trainings that police chiefs would say, 'You'd better bring the damn dog you were trying to avoid if you come in with a prisoner with such an injury.'"
Alpert added, "Now a lot of these vans and cars have videos in them. So it doesn't happen very often."
Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance and Justin Fenton and research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.